Targa Newfoundland 2007 Quest for Gold

For those who aren’t members of The Austin Healey Club U.S.A. and therefore don’t get the Austin Healey Magazine I have posted this article that I wrote at the request of Gary Anderson the editor.

Targa Newfoundland is a highly addictive event. Billed as “The Ultimate Motorsports Adventure“ the event is rapidly gaining a reputation as a test of endurance for man and machine. On the 2007 running of the Targa, Michael Oritt and I learned how challenging “The Targa” can be.

In 2003 and 2004, Blair Harber and I competed in AHX12, the 12th Austin Healey ever built, which he and I had restored and modified within the classic traditions for just such an event.

We achieved a Targa Plate both times for completing every stage within the so called “Plate Time.” But the organizers, knowing that the easiest customer to attract is one who is already converted, follow the traditions of the Alpine rally and dangle a Gold Plate in front of you as the award for completing three events within plate time. So, after a two year hiatus, the quest for gold was the carrot which drew me back.

After months of preparation we loaded AHX12 onto my special transporter, and with “Betty” – the ’59 mini campaigned by my brother-in-law and long-time friend Dick Paterson – on a trailer behind headed off on the 2100 km journey to St John’s, Newfoundland.

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We arrived in St Johns early on Saturday 8 September and spent the rest of the day checking the cars over, completing the necessary formalities and calibrating our odometers in time to be ready for the Prologue on Sunday, 9 September 07.

Day 1: Prologue

The Prologue is really just an opportunity for the crews to shake down their equipment, and for the organizers to get some comparative times to set the start order for the first day of competition. In the right seat of AHX12 this year was Michael Oritt from Solomon’s , Maryland, an admittedly very “green” co-pilot.

 Although Michael had competed in a prestigious European event some years previously, performance rallying was to be a new experience. With its full cage and hardtop AHX12 is not the easiest car to get in and out of, so it took a few attempts to formulate an entry /exit procedure and, once Michael was comfortably installed, he was content to stay put as long as possible.  We had run through the first prologue stage the previous day as part of our mileage check; in fact Michael and I ran it about five times before we were happy with the calibration of our Brantz Rallymeter, so the prologue stages gave us the opportunity to make a start on sorting out terminology. Prior to the event I had tried to work out with Michael the terms he could use to consistently and quickly describe the turns detailed in the instructions. I don’t think I did a very good job because we were still working on this toward the end of the last day!

We made it through the two prologue stages without problems, and although a little apprehensive, felt we were as prepared as possible for the next day.

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Day Two: Leg 1, North Avalon


For those not familiar with the format of this type of event, a short primer: The Targa consists of five days of competition. with each day including between six and nine “stages.” A “stage” is a section of road which is closed to the public with all the side roads and drive-ways taped off to prevent public access. Marshals are positioned along the route to ensure that the road is clear and that any spectators are safely positioned. Once this is all set up, the competing cars, starting at 30-second intervals, drive through the stage as fast as necessary to attain what is often an impossibly fast average speed. Each car has a driver and a navigator and the navigator is provided with a book of “tulip” diagrams which describe sections of the course which depart from the normal flow of the road. 

Sounds easy, right? …Wrong. The roads in Newfoundland are often very rough which, in addition to being really hard on the machinery, makes even reading the route book very difficult.

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Unlike our 2004 start we actually turned the correct way out of the parking lot at the start this year…big bonus…and for the first three stages we did pretty well. The second stage was a bit of a wake-up call for us all and a sad day for Healeys.

As we lined up to start the stage, being the first Targa car for the day after the Touring class cars had been sent off, there was a little commotion among the marshals and the stage was held while an ambulance tore off into the course.Seconds later we were asked if we were ready to start and, despite my protestations that the ambulance must surely still be on the course, we were sent off into the stage.

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 I found that I had to keep the pedal down fairly hard to maintain our required 78 KPH average sped through this windy and bumpy stage and then as we hit an enormous bump in a long sweeping left hand curve, which launched AHX12 into the air and threw us sideways several feet, I was startled to hear Michael shout, “ambulance.” I had been concentrating so hard on the road surface that I hadn’t even seen the huge white and red behemoth on the side of the road and only caught a fleeting but very up-close glance of it as we passed by with all four wheels off the ground To this day I have no idea how we missed it, but in the same instant I caught sight of the unmistakable profile of a turquoise Healey well off the road and bent over some very large rocks.

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This car, running in the Touring class, was the only other Healey in the event and was severely damaged and had been the reason for the ambulance call. Fortunately. neither one of the father and son team of Ivan and Ian Shelton was seriously hurt but the Healey looked like it would need some serous renovation.

After we had passedthe stage was closed while the ambulance made its way off the course and then when it reopened one of the open class cars came to grief in the same spot.

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Targa Newfoundland is indeed a tough event!!!

  The fourth stage, named Northwest Brook, proved to be our undoing. The stage was originally meant to be 31 kilometers long, but when we arrived we were informed that it had been shortened to only 13 kilometers and we were to start at the 18.6 kilometer mark. This change created some problems for us and within one kilometer we went off the road when we missed a left turn at the top of a crest. One of the disadvantages of running a Healey in this type of event is that the combination of long nose and low seating position makes seeing the road ahead very difficult as the car crests a hill, and it is that which caught us out. AHX12 gracefully flew over a large ditch on to a beautifully manicured lawn and landed on top of one of the two fairly substantial pine trees we had flattened.

 

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Michael and I climbed out just in time to dive for cover as a Porsche 914 almost landed on top of us. Fortunately, he managed to miss the ditch and was able to carry on, though a little more cautiously. After a bit of a struggle we succeeded in extricating a slightly less pristine Healey from the trees and, after a quick check for damage, we managed to carry on through the stage.

 

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Unfortunately that incident, as well as causing sufficient of a delay to put us firmly out of contention for a Plate, caused hidden damage which would return to haunt us later in the day.

There were only two more stages on that day, both of which we “cleaned” easily before starting out on a 120-kilometer transit to the town of Gander. As we neared the end this I made the fatal mistake of commenting to Michael: “I am amazed at how much abuse this car can take and keep going.” At that very moment, with a bump and a grind, a rear axle shaft broke, allowing us to just limp to the end of the day courtesy of AHX12’s Dana limited slip differential.

 

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Our crew jumped into action and despite considerable difficulty, had the broken shaft out within a couple of hours while I phoned Toronto to arrange to have the only spare in the world flown out to us, a process which would take until well into the next day.

Day 3: Leg 2 – Exploits
It was a pretty disappointed pair of Healey enthusiasts who stood aside and watched as the rest of the cars headed of on Leg Two, knowing that we were out of the running; little did we realize that there was worse to come. The axle shaft arrived late in the afternoon but, when we went to install it there was more bad news: the entire axle casing had been bent in our “tree felling” excursion requiring that we remove the entire rear axle assembly and try to straighten the case before we could continue.    

 

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Then, to add complications to the process the crew of “Betty” showed up with Betty on a flatbed truck. They had cooked Betty’s engine as a result of a serious water pump leak…the day was not going well

Once the diff was out we took it over to a nearby gas station where the resourceful mechanics used a pair of axle stands, a sledge hammer, a five-ton truck on a hoist and a large oxyacetylene torch to straighten the case.

 

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They finished their work around midnight after which our youngest crew member and I worked until three a.m. to reinstall the diff, only to discover that the spare axle, shipped in from Toronto was too short for the modified differential.

Day 4: Leg 3 – Kittiwake
The next morning we pulled the axle out again and took it to a local machine shop where, using an ancient and very secret Kiwi technique, they lengthened it by half an inch! Sadly for us this process and the time needed to catch up on the rally, which by this time had moved 200 kilometers south to Clarenville, took up the entire day so we missed our second day of competition.

 

Day 5: Leg 4 – Heritage
We were up bright and early and off down Newfoundland’s Burin Peninsular for a long seven-stage day centered on Marystown. 

 

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After so much rebuilding and patching I made a point of taking it easy for the first stage as the goal now was to finish.Nevertheless, AHX12 seemed to be handling and performing well, so we cranked the pace up a little for the next four stages, but during the fast Garnish stage the differential started to emit some new and rather alarming noises, indicating that all was not well. We managed to complete the short Fortune town stage but decided that we had best skip the last two of the day and head back to Marystown to investigate the problem before something failed
catastrophically.When we removed the differential we found that the crownwheel bolts had come loose. These were the original Healey 100 BSF bolts. They had stretched and were looking decidedly worse for wear. As we didn’t have any spares, I decided to apply Locktite and tighten them as much as I dared. The next day had seven stages and I was far from confident that these over-strained,  45-year-old fasteners were going to make it through.

 

 Day 6: Leg 5 – Avalon
Our accumulated penalties of the last three days had managed to push us down to 46th position out of the 53 cars still running and I stagger to think of the trials that those crews who were trailing us must have suffered!Now it really was a case of just making it to the end, and to add to our woes was a 190-kilometer transit to the beginning of the first stage. My concern about the crown wheel bolts was that a seized differential in the middle of a stage could have some fairly serious consequences and even before we had finished the transit the diff was starting to complain.Interestingly, one of the odd phenomenon of Targa competition is that if you try to drive a little slower than normal you are inclined to make mistakes so I decided to drive as quickly and smoothly as I could hoping that we could avoid mistakes and preserve our differential.

The first stage, Osprey Trail East, was an easy one which had been shortened and we breezed through with 33 seconds to spare.The second stage of the day, Spaniards’ Bay/Bishop’s Cove, was a really tough one. In previous years of the event some cars were “clean” up until the very last stages of the last day, so the organizers had decided to insert four stages with impossibly fast times to prevent a draw. We took 57 seconds of penalty but were still running. 

 

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Two stages later we ran Brigus, a short fast town stage, requiring us to maintain an 84 KPH average. Incredibly, while trying to drive as smoothly as I could, we still managed to be one of only 12 cars which cleaned this stage and the two following ones. Unfortunately, this was followed by a 25-second penalty in the final stage of the event, during which we missed a turn and nearly took out a 15-foot-high rock.AHX12 had survived yet another Targa Newfoundland. Despite placing a rather ignominious 44th, we had still managed to win our class and at the gala were delighted to learn that our efforts to finish had resulted in our being voted the co-winners of The Spirit of Targa Award by our fellow competitors. The other winners were the crew of Betty who, after overheating and ruining one engine, trucked their car all the way back to St. Johns and worked for three days and nights to replace their fuel-injected, dry-sumped, crossflow-head engine with one from a regular Cooper S in time to complete the final few stages.

 

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Once again Targa Newfoundland had confirmed its reputation as a tough but very memorable event. My calendar says I’ve got 353 days left to rebuild AHX12 in time for next year’s event.

You can view the complete results for the 2007 Targa Newfoundland here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Michael

Who is this guy? Born in New Zealand some time back. Went to Maori Hill Primary School then Kaikorai Valley High before joining the RNZAF and an Airman Cadet in 1968. Graduated 1972 with an NZCE in Aeronautical Engineering. Then embarked on the typical Kiwis "Big Trip Overseas". Got to see quite a few places, and spent a while in the U.K. "home" as it was refered to by many New Zealanders in those days, before travelling on to New York and then to Canada by bus!! This trip is presently on hold (has been for the last 34 years). Met my dear wife Judy not long after arriving in Ontario and we have been happily married since 1976. After travelling around New Zealand and the pacific in 1979 I started Precision Sportscar andfor the next 23 years grew the business and helped raise 2 boys Drew and Robin.
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